Against the background of a possible war in the Middle East in February, the forthcoming Berlin festival (Feb 6-16) looks to be shaping up as a selection of films about how individuals and humanity perform under pressure.
While festival director Dieter Kosslick's official theme 'Towards Tolerance' may sound bland and indistinguishable from last year's 'Accept Diversity' mantra, it is designed to provide something for the Berlin public and the festival's dwindling number of cash sponsors while also retaining artistic credibility.
The high quotient of US and German pictures in competition can be explained by Berlin, unlike Cannes or Sundance, having a large film-going city population and the fact that its biggest funder, the central government, is right on its doorstep. Kosslick is understood to label his selection as reflecting present day polarisation. "It is about intelligent entertainment and films which reflect the tough real world," said one festival insider.
The German films poised for a competition berth look a gritty bunch, including Hans Christian Schmid's Lichter, a household drama set on the militarised border between Poland and the former East Germany. Wolfgang Becker's Goodbye, Lenin! and Oskar Roehler's Der Alte Affe Angst.
The US selection may boast A-list talent, but not in traditional 'Hollywood' roles: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind sees George Clooney and Julia Roberts in a film dealing with mental disintegration and a possibly delusional CIA assassin; Adaptation sees Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep in a picture about creative turmoil; suicidal angst is core to The Hours; while Alan Parker's The Life Of David Gale is about a death penalty protester who finds himself on death row. Spike Lee's 25th Hour has a similar theme and details a man's last day of freedom before prison. Confessions executive producer Steven Soderbergh and Clooney get a second Berlinale appearance in Soderbergh's sci-fi romance Solaris, a reworking of a Russian classic.
A strong theme - refugees - has prompted Kosslick to break his own rule and take Michael Winterbottom's In Our World, which debuted at the London Film Festival, into main competition. Zhang Yimou's Chinese Oscar hopeful Hero also heads for competition.
The adversity and war themes get further treatment in Gabriele Salvatores' I'm Not Scared (Io No Ha Paura) about a child kidnapping, while Japan's Takahisa Zeze delivers Twilight Samurai, a tale about a low-ranking samurai who is forced to kill. Apparently sporting an Israeli flag, Jeff Kanew's Babij Jar is about the massacre of innocent Russians.
The juxtaposition of blockbusters and auteur pictures may also be justified by Kosslick's wide-ranging view of the film industry. "You have to remember that the bearded Lithuanian director making a film about yoghurt and a stagey showstopper like [out of competition opening film] Chicago are both legitimate forms of cinema," says a source close to the selectors.
Meanwhile, musical notes are struck by Madame Brouette, from Senegal's Mousa Sene Absa, and Pieter Kramer's competition-bound Dutch musical Ja Zuster, Ne Zuster.
The selectors seem set to go with three French films out of four or five strong contenders. Claude Chabrol's La Fleur Du Mal is a shoo-in, while the other hotties include Alain Corneau's Stupeur Et Tremblements and Pascal Bonitzer's Petites Coupures. Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool was screened for both Berlin and Cannes selectors in Paris in December, but it seems Ozon will heed the call of the Croisette instead.
Although Berlin's full official line-up announcement is still three weeks away (Jan 28), the festival is said by many producers and sales agents to be a little behind schedule on its confirmations. Other sections may now beckon for another French film, Antoine De Caune's big budget Napoleon picture Monsieur N, Lone Scherfig's Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself and I Love You, from China's Zhang Yuan.
The adversity-diversity axis could be further strengthened by out of competition screenings such as one for jury member Atom Egoyan's Ararat (first seen at Cannes 2002) and Three Days Of Rain by Michael Meredith, which will be 'presented' by Wim Wenders. Thomas Vinterberg's futuristic romance It's All About Love, which premieres before Berlin in a gala at Sundance, could get a special screening. Other jury members include director Idrissa Onedraogo and actress Martina Gedeck.
The Oscars are likely to be a major theme of the event. With the nominations announced five days into the festival (Feb 11), Kosslick is understood to have briefed staff that reaction speeches for many of the top talent contenders could - as last year - be coming from Potsdamer Platz. That out of competition closing film Gangs Of New York and Chicago will already have been released in English-speaking territories matters little to Kosslick. The festival and the savviest distributors see mutual benefit in using Berlin and the Oscar nominations as a key staging post in continental European marketing campaigns.